Sunday, April 28, 2019

Elroy Gremillion Meets the Governor

I met four Louisiana Governors because of Daddy.  He was in the Louisiana Legislature as a Representative and then State Senator from 1952 to 1976, so I met Robert Kennon, Jimmy Davis of the “You Are My Sunshine” fame, John McKeithen and Edwin Edwards.  Growing up, I always felt like I was in a “goldfish bowl” (my mother’s words, not mine.)  We were to be seen and not heard most of the time. 

However, because of Daddy, I was able to attend inaugurations and parties held by governors around hotel swimming pools.  I even sat in one governor’s desk and read comic books whenever they were in session (yea, I was nine).  I had even been to the governor’s mansion on more than one occasion. It seemed a magical life, for a boy who was free to roam the state capital grounds with the Lt. Governor’s son, climb on Huey Long’s statue, and pretend to give tours from the top of the capital to visitors.  In my teenage years I was even a senate page.  I thought it cool that governors knew my name (even if it only was, “That’s Senator Blair’s son.)

  So, when Daddy officially retired, I felt that my years of meeting governors was over.  Yet, years later, I   met another governor.  The first female governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, governor from 2004-2008, was one that I admired a lot.  I met her after that horrific Katrina disaster that ruined many lives and certainly complicated hers.

 So now I’m sure your question is, “Who is this Elroy Gremillion up in the title?  I thought this was about your experiences.  How did this Elroy know the Governor of Louisiana?   What is this all about?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Those who know me, know of my whimsical art pieces of people.  I loved cutting them out of wood and giving them a name and a story, (you know, sorta like, “Who’s your mama and dem?”) One such piece was Elroy Gremillion.  Yes, Elroy is a figment of my imagination, but Elroy is different from the rest because he was the first one which was created with an entire painted background, complete with a decorated frame, (half of an old screen door).  All the previous pieces were single people. 
                                 ELROY GREMILLION                                    

 This is his story:

Psalm 28:6-7    Praise be to the Lord, for he has heard my cry for mercy.  The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in him, and I am helped.  My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.

 Elroy Gremillion was a bitter Vietnam veteran who turned to drugs and alcohol.  He lived in a cardboard box in the back room of a bait stand on Main street in Pineville, Louisiana, when the weather was good, and in shelters the rest of the time.  I met him at the Main Street Mission, two doors from the bait stand, when he came for a meal one day. (Several from our church served meals twice a month at the mission).  We began to talk over the next few weeks.   It was here that he shared his story. 

Elroy had a lot of hatred about the way he was treated upon returning to the states, and a lot of nightmares of the horrors he experienced fighting in Vietnam.  It was bad enough, he said, that he had to live in dirt and mud while constantly fearing for his life fighting in a war that no one wanted.  Upon returning home he was spat upon and cursed at the airport.  This seemed to be the last straw.  At first, he returned to New Iberia, his hometown, but was treated with the same disdain.  His life spiraled downward after that.   Elroy’s only relative, his sister, kicked him out.  They drifted apart after that. Unable to find a job because of his anger toward people, Elroy ended up on the streets, another of the number of the invisible homeless veterans.  Elroy continued displaying his anger toward others until this one night when he was restless and unable to sleep.  He heard some music.  He gazed out the window searching for the haunting melody, a beautiful rhapsody, he thought, that rippled among the pines.  Unable to find it, he relaxed and slept soundly that night.  When the sun rose, he greeted the day with thanksgiving.  All day that melody penetrated his thoughts.  The owner of the bait stand told him the music came from two doors down, at the mission.  Elroy said he seemed to know the music, but it was as if hearing it for the first time. 

  Main Street Mission became his salvation.  People were different there.  One day he asked the man in charge, “Will you teach me the music?”

“In time,” he replied. “Give it time.”

 As he became stronger, less angry, Elroy discovered how to love again and eventually began to help others who had lost their hearts so they, too, could learn the love of God.

 Elroy’s story is not that complicated, and, like all of us, he is still discovering himself and his purpose in this world.  

In July of 2005, I had a one man show on Magazine Street in New Orleans. 
Elroy was one of the pieces that I had exhibited.  It was a festive, summer evening, with people strolling down the street, stopping at galleries open for the art walk.  I had invited lots of friends and enjoyed a wonderful reception, even sold a few pieces. It was a lovely time with good food and friends.  The show would hang until the end of   August.

 On August 23, disaster hit.  Hurricane Katrina came to town.  
It was the third major hurricane of the 2005 season and the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record.  Eighty per cent of New Orleans was flooded due to breeches in the levee system.  There was looting and crimes. People were stranded in the Superdome.  Life in New Orleans seemed to have ended.  

 I was unable to retrieve my art pieces from Magazine Street.  I didn’t know if the gallery was flooded or if any art was safe.   I tried to contact the owners but received no response.  They had left the city.  After a great deal of searching I turned to a friend that was a state trooper, temporarily assigned to New Orleans to help crowd control.  He eventually found time to go by Magazine Street and informed me  that the building was locked and not damaged by water.  Everything was dry.   Nothing was looted.  The trooper arranged to return my art whenever he came home.   

 Like the Katrina Rose, Elroy had survived the devastation of Katrina.  

 Who knew, that after enduring Katrina, there would be more to Elroy’s story?  Who knew that the Governor would one day meet Elroy Gremillion? That they would become friends and hang out in the Governor’s Mansion together?  Certainly not me.  Perhaps they met when Governor Blanco oversaw the massive evacuation of 93% of the New Orleans area.  We will never know.  Maybe he told her they had something in common, both being Cajuns from New Iberia although I doubt their paths ever crossed during Katrina.

Kathleen Blanco was the 54th and first female Governor of Louisiana when Katrina struck.  I have always had a lot of respect for her.  (Understand this.  We are not going to talk politics here about what troubles Katrina caused her or her career).  The Council for a Better Louisiana gave Blanco it’s Robert B. Hamm Award for Distinguished Service in recognition for her work in improving education in the state and for guiding the first pay raise in years for public school teachers.  She said, “Education was the best way to lead people out of poverty.”

In March of 2007, I was accepted to participate in the Governor’s Sixth Annual State Home Showcase of Art.  I was one of seven artists from the state asked to participate.  A committee, including Governor Blanco selected the art to hang for one year in the Mansion.  My piece, Elroy Gremillion, was selected.  In April, my wife, Frances and I enjoyed the unveiling of the art reception in the Governor’s Mansion where all of us artists had our picture taken with the governor.  We were given a tour of the mansion. It brought back memories of being there in the past.  Beautiful art pieces, from the other artists, hung throughout the building.  Searching for mine, I was surprised to discover that Elroy hung directly in front of Governor Blanco’s desk where she could see it daily.  Later, she told me she wanted it opposite her desk because it made her smile.  He reminded her of her Cajun roots.  I can only imagine what stories Elroy heard and what laughter and tears he witnessed.  I often wonder if she talked to him, late at night, of her frustrations.

Old Elroy Gremillion has had quite a life.  He survived Vietnam and then Hurricane Katrina before meeting the Governor of Louisiana and hanging out with her for a year.   Elroy must be kin to Forrest Gump!  Ha!

Note:   It makes me sad, that as I write this memory, Kathleen Blanco is under hospice care because of cancer.  I wish her family well during this time.  May she transition without pain.  She gave me a wonderful memory that I will forever cherish.

Nippy.   April 26, 2019
© Nippy Blair 2015. Posts and pictures on this blog cannot be copied, downloaded, printed, or used without the permission of the blog owner, Nippy Blair.

Monday, April 15, 2019

 Lena Hall
A memory of a favorite person

I was back from the war in Vietnam, 1970 and still had a year of service left.  After a brief leave at home, I was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky where I worked in a photo lab printing and enlarging negatives.  I didn’t mind the work at all but living in the barracks with forty or more men was nerve wracking for an introvert/extrovert.  I needed space and time alone.

 The room at the barracks was divided into open cubicles. There were eight of us in double bunks crammed together at the back of the room.  The other seven and I were not compatible at all.  They drank every night, came in drunk every weekend, and gambled on the floor in clusters all the time.  There was always loud music into the night.  On top of all that, the base trained artillery nightly.  Which meant that loud noises were heard, and me, just back from Vietnam, was still gun shy.  Many nights I would hear the artillery and jump from bed and run for the bunkers and safety.  It was an automatic response.  I was miserable.

Here I was alone, living in a situation I found deplorable.  I needed help.
 I had two friends in the lab that were in the same situation.  About a week later, the three of us rode a bus to a Volkswagen dealership in Louisville.  We all bought 1970 Karma Ghia’s.  My friends bought convertibles and I, a two- door coup.  I paid $2800.00 cash with money I saved from my tour overseas. Yes.  You read those figures correctly.   I now had freedom.  There are no words to describe the feeling of paying cash for a new car and then driving it off the lot that same day.  None. 

I drove the long way back to the base. I discovered things that day.  One was the town of Elizabethtown and the other was the Severns Valley Baptist Church. The next Sunday, I visited that Baptist Church.  After a few more visits, I joined the church, which I’d been taught was the proper thing to do.  I made friends and joined the choir and a Sunday school.  Life felt normal except for my situation on the base in the barracks, which was still just as deplorable.

Before long, I ended up sleeping in my car, most nights, because my seven bunk mates would harass me. At first, I slept in the base parking lot and then later I ended up sleeping in the parking lot behind the church.  I mentioned this to a man in the choir one day and he suggested I move off the base.  He then introduced me to a lady he was kin to, Mrs. Lena Hall, who was living alone just a few blocks from the church.  She was not that sure of renting to a stranger, nor I from a lady that had violets in vases everywhere and crocheted arm covers on all the furniture.  After our visit we learned we had a lot in common and we agreed to try it for a while. 

I went to my sergeant and explained to him I was moving off base to Elizabethtown.   I gave him her name and phone number.  The sergeant explained that single men were not allowed to live off base unless it was with some relative.  I said, rashly, “She is my grandmother.”  He called while I was standing there before I had time to let her know what I told him.  I was scared.  She answered, “Yes, he is my grandson.”  Wow!  I knew this was the best thing ever, and, I knew Mrs. Hall and I would be great friends.  I moved off base.

She made room in the corner of her basement for a bed and a dresser with an old quilt draped over a wire, for privacy.  It was comfortable.  Eventually she invited me upstairs to watch TV with her.  We became fast friends.   I admired some hand punched rugs on her floor which she had made.  She taught me how to make them. 
Because of Mrs. Hall, I developed a love for folk art and rekindled my desire to return to college and finish my art degree.  

  I took her places on weekends. I used to laugh at her because she began leaving her purse on the stand by her chair, next to the front door, and the very mention of, “Would you like to go somewhere?” would say, “Let me find my purse.” Then reach over, grab it and say, “Here it is.  Ready.”


 Once, we saw an old weaving loom.  I expressed the desire to own one and learn to weave.  She told me stories of someone in her family that wove, reassuring me that we could learn also.  She called her son, Jodie Hall, who traveled around Kentucky and asked him to keep his eye out for a loom.  He found one way up in the woods somewhere in the area at an estate sale.  An elderly couple were giving up the farm.  The loom was in parts, in a pile sitting next to the barn.  Jodie reassured me that if anything was missing, he could probably make the lost part. Everything was there, however.  I bought it for $13.00 because no one else bid on it.  I should have bid lower, (ha)! Jodie helped me move it to his mother’s basement.  We learned to warp it and then to weave.  Mrs.  Hall spent hours sewing rag strips for me to weave.  We made rag rugs and sold them at a Flea market. 

On the ceiling of her basement she kept a quilt frame and often would sit quilting while I learned to weave.  One day, I decided that I would like to paint a quilt.  I bought a white sheet and we stretched it on her quilting frame so I could paint easier.  I painted one for her with red flowers, her favorite, taking it off the frame to measure how it was fitting on the bed and back to the frame.  When finished she and I drew patterns for the quilting.  We bought the filler and put the quilt together before she did the intricate quilting.   Then we made one for my mother in blue. 

Her daughter, Alene and her husband were members of a square-dancing club and would go square dancing on the weekends.  I soon joined them.  I had never, really, square danced before but quickly loved it. There was never any trouble finding a partner.  I loved hearing the caller chanting, “Allemande left and do si do, roll away to a half sashay, ladies in, men sashay. Face your partner and a right and left grand.”  Watching the ladies (and men) in their bright matching costumes and club colors was always a treat.  Of course, Mrs. Hall made an outfit for me, too.  This became a regular on Saturday nights dressing up and traveling around this area of Kentucky and Indiana.

This elderly lady and I in my twenties were a match made in heaven.  I relieved her of the loneliness of living alone and she saved me from a deplorable living arrangement in the barracks.

I hated leaving her at the end of my tour of duty.  I even went to Berea, Kentucky and applied for jobs, to no avail.  It’s a good thing I did return home to continue schooling because I never would have met my Frances. 

We kept in touch for a while, and even made a visit with my wife, once, but I was never able to return and visit her again.  I wish I had made the effort more because she was a large part of who I am today.  She made me see myself as the artist I am.  Thank you, Mrs. Hall for telling that sergeant I was your grandson.
© Nippy Blair 2015. Posts and pictures on this blog cannot be copied, downloaded, printed, or used without the permission of the blog owner, Nippy Blair.